Journal of Modern Literature 24.2 (2000/2001) 327-336
For the Record
Donald R. Anderson
Part of the resonance of John Updike's Rabbit saga comes from the cast of characters that continues to reappear in the novels, either directly or through flashback. By braiding and re-braiding major and secondary characters, Updike gives the works--Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), Rabbit at Rest (1990) and the novella Rabbit Remembered (2000)--the sense of an ongoing present unthreatened even by the death of the title character at the conclusion of the fourth novel. The one notable exception to this is the Reverend Jack Eccles, who, along with his wife, Lucy, and his two daughters, vanishes from Harry Angstrom's world after playing a central role in the moral battlefields of Rabbit, Run. Eccles vanishes, that is, until a re-release of Redux in 1996, when he is patched back into that novel. 1
In a 1992 letter to Stanley Trachtenberg, Updike writes, "I have never made it my habit to skip a scene and then come back to it. . . . You are in danger of losing the music, or the thread, in that way." 2 In some ways, the three-page insertion of 1996 does have that feeling: that there is a different kind of dictional weave to it, a musicality, perhaps, lacking the same tones as the rest of the text. 3 More importantly, though, the inclusion of this scene, coupled [End Page 327] with minor changes made to Rabbit, Run for its re-release in 1996, causes a rethinking of the purposes of Eccles in the context of both the 1950s and the 1990s. He is, as Sanford Pinsker says, "an early instance in the long line of church failures who populate Updike's fiction." 4 But we may question what there is about his failure that induces his creator to confront him once again.
Eccles first appears in that scene in Rabbit, Run when Harry Angstrom returns to the cheerless apartment he has shared with his wife, Janice, and two-year-old son, Nelson, and then abandoned in his search for something as "first-rate" as his glory years of high school basketball. At times through the Rabbit novels, we hear that something described as "it"--a kind of spiritual applause that will announce itself with the clarity of a scoreboard: "'Well I don't know all this about theology, but I'll tell you, I do feel, I guess, that somewhere behind all this," he tells Eccles, "there's something that wants me to find it.'" 5 Eccles will tell him at the same time that, "'Of course, all vagrants think they're on a quest. At least at first'" (p. 110). Three decades later, in the midst of a heart attack brought about by the struggle to save his granddaughter from drowning in the Gulf of Mexico (a place he has fantasized about escaping to in Rabbit, Run), Harry will recall his statement to Eccles: "Once Rabbit told someone, a prying clergyman, somewhere behind all this there's something that wants me to find it. Whatever it is, it now has found him, and is working him over" (p. 122). 6 He does not recall Eccles' reply to him. It was, however, with a single exception, the sole acknowledgement of Eccles as character--although here stripped of identity--in the subsequent works of the series. (Eccles is also unidentified in Rabbit Redux as Harry drives to Jimbo's Lounge, recalling the death of Becky: "he had been told of her death over a pay phone in a drugstore"--p. 32).
While Harry Angstrom will spend much of Rabbit, Run searching for a version of "it" with a call-woman named Ruth Leonard, it will be Eccles' outward task to bring Rabbit back into the boundaries of the traditional family, even as Eccles himself struggles to keep his own marriage and his own ministry free of similar temptations. To provide a kind of spirit-bonding [End Page 328] experience, Eccles takes his more athletic ministrant golfing...